Controllers: Assassin’s Creed – Review

“Just saw Assassin’s Creed. As a standalone movie: 4/10. As a new entry in the AC franchise: 7.5/10. Which means I enjoyed the hell out of it!”

That was my first tweet after exiting the early afternoon showing of Assassin’s Creed today, and there’s enough going on with this movie that I feel like that tweet deserves further elaboration.

**WARNING: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS**

First off, there really are two ways to watch Assasssin’s Creed. One is as a standalone movie, independent from all the games, comics, and other media that have preceded it. Viewed through this lens, Assassin’s Creed borders on being a god-awful waste of incredible potential; a convoluted, two-hour roller coaster of barely developed characters surrounded by half-baked ideas that are never properly explained or expanded on. Because of this, the few moments of genuine brilliance and emotional connection that the film does have are likely to be washed out of the viewer’s mind, or worse, count as another serving of stale cheese in a three-course meal that’s already one step away from rancid.

Thus my first score of 4/10.

However, as I’ve said before, there is another way to watch Assassin’s Creed, another lens to view it through. A lens I fear that the overwhelming majority of the movie-going public will not have access to, because it only comes with being a deeply invested, die-hard fan of the rest of the series.

As such a fan myself, I went into this film already intimately familiar with the ideas and concepts Assassin’s Creed bases it’s story on. I already knew everything there was to know about the Apple of Eden, I already knew how the Animus and the Bleeding Effect worked, and I already knew who and what the Assassins were. This knowledge and more allowed me to view Assassin’s Creed the way I believe (now more than ever) Ubisoft truly intended it to be viewed.

As the opening act in a new chapter of the Assassin’s Creed franchise.

Viewed this way, Assassin’s Creed is in fact the first legitimately good game-to-movie adaptation we’ve had. It sticks amazingly true to everything that made the franchise great, presents an adaptation of the first game’s present-day storyline that’s better than the game itself, and delivers us fans a present-day protagonist that is far more likable and engaging than Desmond Miles ever was. And I say that as someone who actually liked Desmond!

So let’s unpack all this, shall we?

First off, some criticism carry over between viewing methods. None of the characters are particularly well developed, though the acting talents of Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Irons still allow us to forge some level of connection with them. This is particularly true of Fassbender, who takes material that could so easily have been over-acted and sells it in such a way that it still manages to feel real and genuine, if a little cliche. Meanwhile, Irons and Cotillard come across as a believable father/daughter business partners who pursue villainous goals without really acting villainous. They behave like humans rather than caricatures, and that’s a welcome relief in the world of Hollywood (and video game) villains.

However, that cannot be said of the supporting cast. The head of security for Abstergo is almost every inch the stereotypical abusive prison guard, with only one scene of dialog that I can recall, and pretty much every character in the Animus-powered flashback sequences (Fassbender’s Assassin ancestor Aguillar included) is a one-note, cardboard cut-out. That’s not to say there’s no potential with any of them, because there is. It’s just that the movie doesn’t have the spare time to realize that potential. The supporting cast in the present day fares a little better, but that’s really just damning with faint praise. When some of Callum’s fellow Assassins die in the present day climax, it’s hard to feel anything but this sense of emotional manipulation as the film kills someone it never let you connect with in the first place.

In addition, while the Assassin’s Creed games have excelled at telling dual-narrative stories split between the Assassins of the past and their descendants in the future, Assassin’s Creed itself falls flat on its face in this regard. The Templars in the past are clearly after the Apple of Eden as well, and have kidnapped a Sultan’s son in order to force said Sultan to hand the Apple over, but how this at all relates to the Spanish Inquisition is never explained, and it’s presented in such a threadbare, disconnected way that it’s still a bit hard to follow.

Fortunately for the game fans out there, this is where things start to improve.

Freed as they’ll be from the confusion about what genetic memories are and how the Animus & Bleeding Effect work, the present-day story of Assassin’s Creed makes infinitely more sense. In it, we see a world with the Templars on the verge of victory, and the Assassins effectively defeated. The pre-existing characters from the games are presumably still alive and free, but as far as the movie is concerned, every other Assassin and/or descendant is either dead or imprisoned alongside Michael Fassbender’s character. This is fertile ground for storytelling, and a much needed change of pace given how aimless and unfocused the present-day storyline of the games has become.

As for the present-day story itself, it’s basically a much more engaging and exciting remake of the plot of the first game. The Templars are after the Apple of Eden in order to use it’s power to override free will and essentially enslave humanity, and they have to use the genetic memories of an Assassin’s descendant to find it. However, unlike previous series protagonist Desmond Miles, Callum Lynch is by no means a passive and compliant subject. He’s angry, he fights, he resents the life he’s been forced to live and rather than whine about it, he resists the Templar’s attempts to synchronize him with his ancestor. This makes him much easier to root for and to feel for than Desmond was, and again, I say that as someone who likes Desmond!

I also have to give a special commendation to the action sequences in this film. Every chase and fight feels like they were choreographed with the express purpose of bringing the games themselves to light, and I found myself feeling like I was almost playing the game as I watched these parts of the movies. There’s minimal use of the dreaded shaky-cam, and what shake there still is mercifully gets balanced out by a number of gorgeous wide shots that show the actors and stunt-people running and fighting through the Spanish rooftops.

Finally, since this is the “Fan Lens” section of the review, I have to talk about the fact that this movie takes place in continuity with the games. This may not sound like much at first, but there is some MAJOR shit that goes down in this movie. And I’m talking “major” in ways that future games in the series simply cannot ignore. Even with my spoiler warning at the beginning of this review, I don’t want to give away too much, but what I can say the movie ends with a present-day assassination that has explosive ramifications for the future of the Assassin/Templar conflict. It also comes *this* close to confirming my hypothesis that Ubisoft is using Assassin’s Creed as a soft reboot for the entire series.

That’s why when I view this film through the lens of an already invested, die hard fan, I give it a 7.5/10. Assassin’s Creed has its flaws to be sure, but as a new entry in/soft reboot of the franchise as a whole, it’s more than worth the price of admission. I will absolutely be buying this film once it comes out on blu-ray. 🙂

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Controllers: Why I Have Hope for Assassin’s Creed.

First off, a little house cleaning.

Yes, I redesigned the layout of my website again and thankfully, this time I’m quite pleased with it. It’s not *quite* finished yet, as I’m in the process of getting some custom artwork done to make the visuals of this place better match up with the “Quills & Controllers” name. Once I get that put up, I will finally be truly happy with the way this site is set up.

So, with that all out of the way, lets get to the real reason for this post. 😉

The Assassin’s Creed franchise has been one of my top 3 favorite gaming franchises of the last decade. I thought the first game was a wonderfully and refreshingly unique experience, both from a gameplay perspective as well as a storytelling one, despite it’s various shortcomings. And then Assassin’s Creed 2 came out and made the entire first game look like a glorified tech demo, blowing me away with it’s amazing expansion of the core gameplay mechanics from the first game, as well as the jaw-dropping plot twist at the game’s climax.

The next two games, Brotherhood and Revelations, more or less coasted along with incremental upgrades to the gameplay (though the new ability to recruit new Assassins and send them out on missions was an incredibly fun side-activity), but that didn’t matter much to me. The story continued to enthrall me, with each chapter hyping me up more and more for what increasingly came to look like an Earth-shattering conclusion.

A conclusion that never really materialized.

Oh don’t get me wrong, Assassin’s Creed 3 brought a very definitive end to the personal story of the main character, but for the over-arching story of the series as a whole up to that point, it was a depressing anti-climax.

As a deep lover of story and of storytelling, I was sore about the ending of Assassin’s Creed 3 for quite some time. I still played the fourth game, subtitled Black Flag, and found it to be an overall enjoyable experience that opened up an exciting new storytelling avenue for the franchise.

A storytelling avenue that was ignored entirely in the next game, Assassin’s Creed: Unity.

Unity was the game that broke the franchise for me. To say nothing of how far off point the story seemed to have drifted, or the rampant technical issues that plagued it, Unity also changed up the core gameplay in significant ways. Ways that made it impossible for me to play the game the way I’d played all the other Assassin’s Creed games, and consequently took all the fun out of it for me.

I was so burned by Unity that I didn’t even think about playing the latest game in the franchise, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.

Which brings us, at last, to today; nine days out from the release of Assassin’s Creed; a feature-length Hollywood adaptation of the eponymous games starring Michael Fassbender as the main character. Normally I’d be pretty cynical, if not outright hostile, towards this film. After all, pretty much every Hollywood adaptation of a video game has been a faithless cash-in that shares nothing but a name with the game that it’s based on. Combine that with my still-deep love for the Assassin’s Creed franchise as a whole, and I should be leading the angry mob with their pitchforks and torches in an effort to tear this film to pieces.

And yet I’m not.

Largely because of this trailer.

In my mind, that trailer is the culmination of everything I’ve heard about this film (and the franchise as a whole) that has given me reason to be nervously excited for it. For one, Ubisoft (the creators of Assassin’s Creed) is maintaining creative control over the project, which will thankfully prevent it from becoming another Resident Evil. Secondly, Ubisoft has stated repeatedly that the movie is not an adaptation, but a brand-new story that takes place within the pre-existing Assassin’s Creed universe. Finally, some time after the release of Syndicate, Ubisoft announced that there would be no new Assassin’s Creed game announced in 2016, and that after eight years of annual releases, the franchise was unlikely to resume an annual release pattern. When I take all that together and combine it with this line from the trailer: “All the bloodlines have died out, bar one.”? It makes me wonder…

Is the Assassin’s Creed movie intended as a soft-reboot of the entire franchise?

I don’t want to go too wild with speculation here, but there are a handful of things about this movie that make me think this really could be the case. First and foremost: that line about bloodlines. It’s a well established fact of the franchise that in the present-day, the Assassins are heavily outmatched by their archenemies, the Templars. So could that line mean the modern Assassins are all but extinct? If that’s the case, then could Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender’s character) become the new main character of the games? Or, perhaps more likely, could he be the one to reconstitute and revitalize the fallen Assassin Order after his inevitable escape from the Templars? And if so, does that mean Callum Lynch will appear in future Assassin’s Creed games as a mentor to whoever the new player character turns out to be?

Also, with the Apple of Eden returned to the forefront of the story in this movie, could that mean the Templars are on the verge of finally enacting the plan that basically kicked off the whole series? If that’s the case, then Ubisoft definitely seems to be refocusing on the core conflict of the series as it was presented in the very first game, which can only be a good thing given how unfocused the Assassin/Templar conflict has become as of late.

Finally, Jeremy Irons has been confirmed as playing Alan Rikkin, the CEO of Abstergo Industries, which is the front company for the Templars. This is a HUGE point of continuity, as while Alan Rikkin has already made minor appearances in the games, this film will be his first major appearance as a central antagonist. For those up to date with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is basically the moment where Thanos reaches into the vault, grabs the Infinity Gauntlet, and says “Fine. I’ll do it myself.” This, almost more than anything else, makes me think that Ubisoft at least wants to use the film as a way to breathe new life into the franchise, and possibly even gear up for a whole new series of games!

Okay… I guess I did go a little wild with the speculation there, but I think you get my point regardless. The Assassin’s Creed franchise is well positioned for a successful reboot, and when all things are taken together, it seems pretty clear that a reboot is exactly what the Assassin’s Creed movie is primed to deliver. Whether or not it will be successful in that delivery remains to be seen, but given how much Ubisoft has evidently learned from their past mistakes, I for one am hopeful that it will. 🙂

-Zach